A Crazy Rich Rom-Com
An all Asian cast is nothing new to fans of world cinema -some of the best movies ever made have had all Asian casts, after all. But Crazy Rich Asians, the romantic-comedy based on the book by Kevin Kwan and forebodingly directed by Jon M. Chu, is not a Chinese movie, or a Korean movie, or a Japanese movie, but firmly an American movie, made by a cast and crew of largely American, British and Australian people of Asian heritage. And that is certainly rare. It hasn’t really happened since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
Early on in this film it dawned on me I’d never seen a mainstream Hollywood movie with two Asian romantic leads (sometimes the woman would be, scarcely would the man), which speaks to this movies’ importance. The likeability of their relationship spoke to its quality.
The movie’s about Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) who invites her to come back to Singapore with him where he’s to be the Best Man at a wedding. Once there though she learns that he happens to belong to one of the richest, most prestigious families in all of South Asia and must contend with his stern, disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), as well as his barrage of eccentric relatives.
There’s nothing in this movie you haven’t seen in another romantic comedy. Crazy Rich Asians is a cornucopia of clichés, but it knows and loves the genre conventions so earnestly so as to elevate rom-com trite into an art form unto itself. While there’s almost no self-awareness, there’s no cynicism either, and with the unique context and presentation, Chu does the best that he can to make it all feel new. And a lot of the time he succeeds. This is an unusually well-directed movie from him.
The lavish presentation and cultural touches make it visually unique and colourful, a couple sequences shot almost like a Bollywood movie, but it remains rooted in its simple yet charmingly told story.
The cast is one of the biggest factors in lifting up the banal material and lacklustre script. Wu and Golding are terrific on their own, but they have incredibly palpable chemistry when on screen together. They’re a legitimately endearing couple. Golding has a natural charisma, something which no doubt suited him well as a television presenter, but also conveys genuine humility, while Wu as the star really rises above her stereotypical character arc.
Perhaps she doesn’t react entirely realistically to the fact her boyfriend’s been deliberately hiding a large part of his life from her initially, but she does hold her own; going toe to toe with Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh of course is a force of nature, delivering a powerful performance as the traditionalist mother with her own pent-up insecurities.
Gemma Chan is superb, as well, as Nick’s cousin Astrid dealing with her own tempestuous personal life. There are good turns from Chris Pang, Jing Lusi, Sonoya Mizuno, Tan Kheng Hua, and veteran actress Lisa Lu (of films like The Mountain Road and The Last Emperor) as Nick’s grandmother, and even decent comic relief coming from Nico Santos and Ronny Chieng. Ken Jeong and Awkwafina however feel kind of misplaced. Jeong’s talented at playing obnoxious characters, but it takes the right kind of script and direction to make it funny, and here Chu doesn’t have either. And though Awkwafina gets a couple laughs, her character is exactly the kind of American Eleanor fears Rachel is -though she’s supposed to be Singaporean.
The movie goes on a bit long to fit in the obligatory third act break-up. But perhaps the biggest problem with Crazy Rich Asians is that by the very nature of its story, it’s a tribute to privileged excess and the wealthy elite. It glamourizes ultra-rich lifestyles without any real satirical commentary or addressing of social inequity outside of Rachel and Nick’s humble necessities. The homogeneity of the class being appraised has already drawn criticism from some in the South Asian community for being inaccurate to Singaporean diversity and promoting the dominant culture at the expense of the marginalized, which is true. The filmmakers didn’t really think of the consequences of a story about the problems of the top tier members of society, as they were preoccupied with its fairy tale romance potential. However consequences are very rarely a part of romantic-comedies -they would ruin the genre’s tenets of wish fulfilment. This isn’t an excuse, just the logical explanation. Still. I wish more of the movies’ rich jokes took the form of scathing indictments rather than mere shows of extravagance.
Crazy Rich Asians, for all its predictability and formula storytelling, does the romantic comedy justice by its sheer passion to do so. Everyone involved seems to be enjoying themselves and aware of the movies’ importance as a diversity touchstone. It exposes plenty of great talent, though Wu, Golding, Yeoh, and Chan especially stand out. And it even incorporates lightly, some interesting aspects of Chinese and Malaysian culture. It’s certainly a typical Hollywood love story, but atypical in most of the right ways.